Panama – Coiba + Colombia – Malpelo trip on catamaran Inula
Central America on the Pacific side still was a white spot on my destination list. I had seen many tempting pictures of hundreds of hammerheads cruising along above your head. I read some disturbing reports on rather bad vis, low temperatures, rather demanding dives in some washing machine like conditions. This so far had kept me away from these places. This year I thought, why not try. To make the most of it, I decided to at least visit two different spots there. Through internet research I learned of the Yemaya and the catamaran Inula, both offering trips to Coiba - Panama and Malpelo – Colombia. The first boat seemed to be fully booked far into 2014, so I looked closer onto Inula. A small catamaran with 4 cabins and 2 heads only, I wondered if a guy like me, who needs his space, would be happy there. The adventurous part in me said, yes do it.
Went from Amsterdam, Netherland, on a direct flight (10.5 h) with KLM to Panama City. Cheaper flights from Europe on US airlines would have included at least one stop in Atlanta (Delta). I spent 3 nights in P. at the Country Inn & Suites close to the Canal and Bridge of America. Did a bit of sightseeing, which is really worth it, visited the old town and strolled through local markets. Taxi fares are real cheap, so it´s easy to see places. Alternative there is the hop on and off double-decker bus cruising through the town. A trip on the Canal is a must, it´s impressive to learn how much work it took to build this thing. Fascinating to see huge container ships being sluiced through the different chambers to reach altitude or sea level. . From Albrok Airport (domestic) I then headed onwards to David, a short one hour flight only. Panama Airlines have a baggage allowance of 14 Kilo. My suitcase had 20 which cost me 10 $ plus a fine of 20 $ for crossing the limit. However on my way back it was only 7 $ altogether. It took another 2.5 hours by bus to reach the anchoring of the Inula at Boca Chica. We were only 4 guests, (1 US, 3 Germans) so I was lucky and got one of the two bigger cabins in the middle of the boat. A friend of mine had been on the I. two month ago, got the cabin below, which for two seems to be rather narrow, he told me. My cabin had 2 big windows and 1 ceiling opening, good for fresh air during the night. Right outside was a workroom and one of the heads. One step outside got me to the dive area with sink, fresh water shower and a tank for cameras. 10 more steps round the corner brought me to the lounge, which at the same time is wheel house, briefing room etc. We started engines right away and motored through some beautiful area surrounded by lush tropical forest and mangroves, which reminded me of a trip on the Amazonas. Arvid, the owner and skipper, gave us a briefing on boat procedures, schedules and dive safety. Each one had to bring 1 SMB and a torch. We all got a GPS device to attach to our BC, which you could use as radio to Inula, to all boats or send a distress signal with GPS reading to everyone in that area. A first for me and a fantastic idea in this region!
Coiba is a marine protected area, so it was no surprise to find a good variety and abundance of rather tame fish life around. Water temperature ran around 28 degrees Celsius, vis was anything between 5 and 20 meters. The reef is totally different to the ones you are used to in the Indian Ocean. It´s mostly rocks and boulders with a bit of hard coral, some small grey Gorgonia and yellow polyps. Best site in this area was a place called “Hannibal”. It´s a blue water dive on a sea mount, where we encountered huge groups of Jacks, Trevallies, Bonitos and Red Snappers. I guess the Jacks alone were more than 500 animals, I couldn´t see my buddies when cruising through this bunch. One of the woouuh moments in a divers life for sure. On our safety stop a school of Cow Nose Rays flew past underneath us. Several times we had humpbacks and dolphins near the boat.
From Coiba it took us 2 nights and 1 full day to reach Malpelo. Impressive to see for the first time this rocky island appearing in the distance. Water temperature dropped down to 27 degrees C , sometimes thermoclines brought it down to 24 or even less. 5 mil with hood then proved to be a good idea. Vis was better here, most times 20 m plus. We were lucky and most times had rather calm seas and only little current. Only 3 times we really had to kick like hell to reach our dive site and follow the plan. For me Malpelo was top notch and on a scale up to ten it was eleven. I feel you have to look for a long time to top what we experienced here or find a place with that much fish life. The abundance of fish all around was stunning and awesome. My favorite dive site was La Nevera, where we had encounters with large schools of hammerheads above and below us each time we went there. In between big Galapagos sharks cruised by. On safety stops silkies joined us. Moray eels you would find on every dive and stopped counting those. Very often more than one animal was in a corner, often free swimming not hiding at all. We had eagle rays flying past, once a group of 12 animals. 5 times we had juvenile whale sharks close to us, one liked to swim around our boat for a while, a great chance for some nice shots. Once even a group of dolphins looked down on us, they seemed to be curious what these guys are doing in their own water. Yellowfin tuna was often around, huge bunch of “Grunts” around some bolder, Hawkfish hiding everywhere between the rocks. I´m no photo journalist, so I don´t know if it´s possible to take a picture of a whole scenery. I would have liked to do that at “Les tres Mosqueteros”, to show you, how many different fish were in one place. Imagine you put 30 Leather Bass, 50 Jacks, 20 Trevallies and 100 yellow Butterflyfish into one frame. That about sums up what we saw on safety stop on one reef alone. After 10 minutes my buddies signaled for me to surface, I just couldn´t leave that fascinating picture. Three days we watched a whale with baby cruising around at the island. Sometimes the mother jumped out of the water or hit the surface with her tail. Then we tried our luck snorkeling while the skipper pointed out which way she went. We were only 3 m away, when the whale with baby swam by with easy strokes of her huge tail. Woouuh again. On Coiba we mostly jumped from the mother boat and had to climb the 2 m ladder on return. Around Malpelo most times we went with Zodiac to the many sites around the island. You could either follow the guide or dive your own profile with buddy. Three dives a day were offered, you could chose Nitrox for which he charged 9 $ a fill. Arvid is extremely safety conscious and conservative. Most safety stops even those without deco took at least 10 minutes. A good and safe way to make sure you will stay well inside the limits on 11 consecutive days of diving (5 Coiba 6 Malpelo).
Meals were lovely, nothing fancy but delicious solid food like you will get at your mom´s place. They even prepared gluten free stuff for me. The freshly cooked fish soup was better than any Bouillabaisse I had in France.
I would have liked to visit and hike across the island. However we would have missed one dive, so guests preferred to continue diving. A ranger lives on the island to make sure that no fishing boats come into this protected area. Two Colombian boats are supposed to patrol the whole place. This doesn´t seem to work, two times we saw fishing boats in the distance. Colombian officials should be advised to strongly and seriously enforce the rules for this beautiful area. Colombia will through this benefit from tourists coming here. At the same time nature and future generations will profit.
The whole Inula adventure was a new experience for me. I learned that you can easily live with less – no aircondition, no hot towels right after the dive, no fresh doughnuts, no made bed, no Jacuzzi etc. But at the same time enjoy everything which comes your way with more pleasure and commitment. Thank you Inula and Arvid for all these lovely new impressions